Business leaders worried about post-Brexit tech threats

At a time when both main political parties have made separate pledges to tackle cyber-crime, new research shows a worrying lack of preparedness among businesses, with 82% of firms identifying one or more threats to business continuity as a result of Brexit; a view consistent across all sectors and major UK cities.

All but one business sectors say data and cybercrime issues are the biggest threat to business continuity in a post-Brexit world. The research conducted among 1,002 UK business leaders commissioned by ThoughtWorks highlights that businesses feel exposed to – and unprepared for – a range of pressing data safety and cyber risk issues (33%) and was a greater concern for 2020 than a range of specific Brexit challenges – such as the weak Pound (24%), supply-chain disruption (20%) and the employment of EU citizens (22%).

Of the 33% of business leaders that mentioned tech worries, the specific areas of concern comprised of:

  • changes to the transfer of personal data between the UK and the EU (54%);
  • vulnerability to cyber-attacks (42%);
  • changes to the storage, purpose and processing of customer data (30%).

These findings come less than 18 months after GDPR was introduced, which has been followed by a series of widely-publicised data breaches involving major brands. Indeed, the survey suggests data safety becomes a bigger issue the larger the business. The larger companies polled were more than twice as likely than small businesses to see tech issues – including cyber-attack risks and data safety – as the biggest threat to business continuity in post-Brexit Britain (47% compared to 22%)[1].

Beyond tech fears, there were a number of additional financial and operational concerns for businesses in adjusting to the prospect of Brexit. Financial issues included the falling value of the Pound (24%) and disruption to flows of capital or changing investor appetite (14%). In terms of operational issues, many foresaw disruptions to their supply chain as a threat to business continuity (20%), whilst other business leaders were worried about access to talent – specifically, the employment of EU citizens in the UK – and UK citizens in the EU (22%).

Whilst London is often seen to be at the centre of Brexit debate, the ThoughtWorks research canvassed business leader opinion across the UK, listening to decision makers from more than 10 of the country’s biggest cities. The results show that whilst across all cities business leaders were uniformly worried about risks to business continuity, technology issues were a particular concern in England’s three biggest cities – London (44%), Manchester (39%) and Birmingham (38%).

Specific city highlights:

  • Edinburgh businesses were the most likely to say they were concerned about exposure to cyber-attacks (25%). Beyond tech issues, firms in Edinburgh were also highly likely to worry about the prospect of economic protectionism and trade wars after Brexit (25%).
  • London businesses were also worried about cyber security after Brexit (24%) but were slightly more likely to be concerned over changes to the storage, purpose and processing of customer data after Brexit (25%).
  • More than a third of Glasgow firms (35%) forecasted tech issues as the biggest threat to continuity after Brexit – with nearly a quarter worrying about the safe storage of data (24%). Glasgow businesses were also the most likely to worry about storing data safely compared to any other UK city (21% Vs. national average 12%).

Sector fears
Every sector – except for the retail sector – saw data and cyber-related issues as the biggest threat to business continuity after Brexit. The import and export of goods slightly tipped the balance for businesses in the retail sector (36% vs. 35%). However, for all the other sectors surveyed, tech issues topped the Brexit worry list – with the public services sector coming top at 47%.

Other sectors where business leaders were particularly worried about the impact of tech-related threats to business continuity included; media and tech (40%); financial services (37%); retail (35%) and manufacturing (33%).

Jim Gumbley, Head of Cyber Security, ThoughtWorks UK commented: “After a period of unprecedented economic and political uncertainty, we wanted to ask businesses around the UK how prepared they felt for the key operational, financial, regulatory and tech issues that could result from Brexit. Whilst data security and cyber risks were seen as top concerns, it is important to stress that they are no longer just tech issues. Given what’s at stake for businesses, in terms of revenues, brand equity, trust and reputation, security and processes surrounding data need to be factored into the highest levels of corporate strategy.

“Whether UK businesses are pursuing their own development initiatives or investing in tech-driven start-ups, data security must be factored in from the get go. From our London and Manchester offices, ThoughtWorks is helping major brands spanning a range of industry sectors to put data and security at the heart of their thinking and to develop a culture of innovation and agility so they can go towards change and market uncertainty – to see it as an opportunity not a risk.”